Playing Favorites: What beliefs should chaplains support?

All equal or some set above others?

Today’s chaplaincy has been assigned care and counseling, free exercise, and establishment clause responsibilities far outside their faith-based roots.[1] The military chaplaincy, and to some extent the civilian chaplaincy, is faced with a more diverse laity than ever in the past. Chaplaincy originally constituted assistance by the clergy in a Christian fashion from the story of Martin of Tours.[2] In the US military, Protestant and Catholics were the original clergy appointed by George Washington.[3] Abraham Lincoln opened the military chaplaincy to the Jewish faith.[4] This Judeo-Christian or even “god”-only focus will no longer fulfill the mission. The general population of the military represents over 100 different denominations even after accounting for nearly one-quarter stating the nebulous “No Religious Preference”.[5] The chaplaincy, to remain relevant and effective within its resource limitations, must better define the scope of its services. The IRS provides an objective and useful “church” standard to define the scope of chaplaincy services.

When considering the scope of chaplaincy services, the first question often asked is, “what is religion”? One senior chaplain (who wishes to remain anonymous) offered the Supreme Court’s “pornography” definition for religion, which is to say “I know it when I see it”.[6] This cursory response translates in practice to, “if it’s got God, it’s religion; if not, then it’s just a hobby”. The Department of Defense through its Equal Opportunity regulation defines religion primarily as “deeply-held beliefs”.[7] The MAAF has suggested a framework of core identity, values and beliefs, and a community of like-minded individuals. The dictionary definition of religion will provide some combination of all of these ideas. However, wrestling with definitions may be altogether avoidable.

A better question to ask is to what extent, if any, chaplains will provide (non-sectarian) pastoral care services to diverse communities of belief. There are military personnel, families, patients, and inmates who need support for their overall well-being, be that from a spiritual or naturalistic perspective. People, military or civilian, theistic or nontheistic, struggle with questions of ultimate concern about life, death, tragedy, meaning, and other areas. Chaplains should be willing and able to help individuals using more than just their own faith-based toolkit. The patient will profess certain beliefs, and the chaplain should provide support on the terms of the patient/soldier/etc.[8] Chaplains will be best equipped to support those who share a specific or at least compatible faith tradition with the chaplain (e.g., Lutherans helping Methodists). There are few conflicts for major faith groups (e.g., Protestants helping Protestants and Jews helping Jews). However, in the military especially, chaplains are the only resource available to provide support for all, even those of disparate beliefs (e.g., Mormons helping Wiccans). The ability and requirement for a chaplain to support those outside his or her faith tradition is what distinguishes a chaplain from civilian clergy.

View as pdf: Playing Favorites MAAF 20120424

The question of who benefits from chaplain support, and how they benefit, should take precedence over the semantic discussion of what “religion” means. Chaplains provide “Pastoral Care”. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors defines Pastoral Counseling as “beyond the support or encouragement a religious community can offer … providing psychologically sound therapy that weaves in the religious and spiritual dimension.”[9] That is assumed to include leading worship services for those whose beliefs match those of the chaplain. There is an explicit requirement, however, to care for those who have different beliefs and to provide informal counseling not rising to the level of formal counseling or mental health services. Most chaplains recognize the importance of providing for others who have divine/supernatural beliefs. Christians provide services to Jews and Muslims, if not directly then through another chaplaincy or related organization. However, clergy of monotheistic faiths often hold grave concerns regarding provision of services to those with nontheistic and naturalistic beliefs. What is a chaplain’s responsibility to someone who does not believe in a god or other supernatural power?

The underlying assumption of the general public and even professional chaplains is that chaplains “only do god” or at least supernatural spiritual support. This assumption is somewhat valid considering the history of the chaplaincy. By virtue of history, especially in the US and the military, the assumption could be that the chaplaincy is exclusive to Judeo-Christian beliefs. Looking at the modern chaplaincy, we see a chaplaincy profession that serves a population with diverse beliefs[10] and that serves in cooperation with other care-giving professions. A more modern view is found in Outcome Oriented Chaplaincy: Only a minority of 43 outcome-based “interactions” are focused on the beliefs of patients, and only a few were exclusively for those with divine/supernatural beliefs.[11] Chaplaincy is no longer just a euphemism for institutional clergy but rather a profession with competencies outside of religious clerical services. This respect for and development of a chaplaincy that provides care to all, including those with monotheistic, pantheistic, nontheistic or undeveloped beliefs, is the future of a relevant and needed chaplaincy.

The progressive discussion on the nontheistic constituency of the chaplaincy calls into question who can properly provide an endorsement for chaplains. “Endorsement” involves the recognition of a chaplain’s qualifications to represent a certain tradition of belief, generally through clergy credentials. This contrasts with “certification” which relates to professional competencies outside religious endorsement. Some have argued that chaplains can serve with no endorsement at all[12] (others disagree,[13] but this article does not address that question). Currently, employing institutions decide for themselves what organizations are and are not qualified to endorse. The Association of Professional Chaplains refers to the Yearbook of Churches,[14] but the Yearbook only lists Christian churches. This unregulated process makes endorsement recognition arbitrary, and by the volatile nature of religious accommodation, possibly open to legal challenge on grounds of discrimination. Especially in the case of government agencies like the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, the need to maintain government neutrality toward religion is paramount. Chaplain professionals and related agencies should be advising on proper and objective means of recognizing endorsements and endorsers.

The IRS provides a convenient “church” designation that provides distance and objectivity in identifying valid endorsing agencies. The Internal Revenue Code (US Code 26) includes Section 501c3 standard charitable tax exemption. Organizations can fill out Schedule A of Form 1023[15] (application for tax-exempt status) to opt into the more specific “church” designation provided for in Section 170b1Ai.[16] While “church” sounds exclusive to Christianity, the code explicitly provides for other sorts of communities not called “church” (e.g., synagogue and mosque). The Department of Defense has adopted the IRS “church” standard (DoDI 1304.28)[17] as a requirement for their chaplain endorsers. Veterans Affairs (VHA 1111.01)[18] along with some civilian agencies apply the standard of an organization primarily concerned with “ministry to a laity” but don’t define what that term means. The IRS standard follows the “ministry to a laity” concept while adding additional details[19] and the valuable objectivity of an unrelated and presumably unbiased government agency. The IRS standard does not necessarily require belief in a supernatural power, scriptures, prophets, or rituals. While these items are suggested, the IRS standard (Form 1023 Schedule A) is flexible enough to allow for the modern diversity of beliefs. Chaplain employers also have the benefit of requiring one document – the IRS “church” tax determination letter – to verify the “religious” qualifications of an endorser, instead of having to review a larger packet of beliefs, values, traditions, and organizational information.

Chaplain employers need legitimate endorsing agencies with the ability to authentically represent adherents and oversee chaplains. Employers also need to put aside agencies that may be charitable but that are not appropriate for chaplaincy oversight. The IRS “church” standard provides a useful distinction between nonprofits in general and communities of belief more appropriate for endorsement.

Organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and Jewish Welfare Board provide chaplains to the military but are not necessarily organized as churches. These types of organizations may still step in to provide administrative services so long as the endorsement itself is provided by the “church” agency. By processing paperwork and serving as a point of contact for multiple churches, non-church 501c3 nonprofits may be able to service the endorsement process so long as a church organization is governing the endorsement. Churches, especially smaller ones may have difficulty processing what can be complicated endorsement paperwork. However, the churches themselves would still retain final and exclusive determination on the endorsement and accountability for their chaplains.

This article started with the apparent problem of what beliefs chaplains support but continued to ask the more important question of how chaplains can support everyone. One must avoid the red herring questions of “what is religion?” or “what is spirituality?”. The real question is “who needs support?”. The most honest answer is that everyone needs support: every patient, every soldier, and even the chaplains themselves. Chaplains support everyone, but how? Assumed is that endorsed clergy will provide authentic faith/belief-based support to those who request it. But there is still the question of supporting those who don’t share the specific beliefs the chaplains are endorsed to minister. How do Jewish chaplains help Christians? How do Muslim chaplains help Hindus? How do Humanist chaplains help Christians? The answers to these questions relate to referral to those who can provide support according to the beliefs of the patient. To understand referrals chaplains should provide, we should avoid, if possible, trying to have chaplains “playing favorites” to categorically exclude some beliefs.

Should chaplains support the chess club and the democrats and the stoics? Probably not. Those organizations (as they are generally understood) represent activities or philosophies, but not a “core belief” that one might associate with chaplaincy support. The ability to point to an IRS-recognized “church” organization cannot be the sole determiner because not every individual’s beliefs are recognized by an organization. It is not within the scope of this article to provide a framework for recognizing individuals whose beliefs, while core to their identity, are not represented by a recognized IRS “church” organization, but this article does provide a first-line standard: If a “church” organization represents an individual’s beliefs, then chaplains should provide for those beliefs on par with others. Failure to do so creates a have/have-not hierarchy of beliefs where some beliefs are unfairly privileged over others. If that “church” organization does exist, then chaplains of all faiths can utilize that church organization as an asset to understand and provide for authentic support to adherents. That “church” organization can also partner with the chaplaincy to ensure accommodation requests are reasonable and representative of the belief system.

The chaplaincy currently has an invisible wall that reinforces an in-crowd of acceptable beliefs and an out-crowd of troops whose beliefs aren’t accepted.[20] This is most pronounced in the case of humanists and other atheists who don’t even have consistent chaplain recognition and have chaplains who are uneducated about naturalistic beliefs. It’s important to give chaplains and the chaplaincy as a whole an objective standard by which to decide what beliefs they will and won’t support and that they will and won’t be educated to serve. At least for those individuals, including humanists, who have established and recognized “church” or other congregational organizations that can provide authentic representation, the IRS standard provides a convenient and effective first check.


[1] http://www.chaplaincorps.af.mil/ “The Air Force Chaplain Corps provides spiritual care and the opportunity for Airmen, their families, and other authorized personnel to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. This is accomplished through religious observances, providing pastoral care, and advising leadership on spiritual, ethical, moral, morale, core values, and religious accommodation issues.” Similar statements in other services as well as common oversight from DoD for chaplain activities.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_of_Tours “The priest who cared for [St Martin’s cloak] in its reliquary was called a cappellanu, and ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived.”

[3] http://www.chapnet.army.mil/usachcs/origins/chapter_1.htm “General George Washington issued the following General Order … The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act as becomes a Christian Soldier”

[4] http://www.jewishworldreview.com/jewish/history11.php3 “on July 17, 1862, Congress finally adopted Lincoln’s proposed amendments to the chaplaincy law to allow “the appointment of brigade chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religions.”

[5] http://www.militaryatheists.org/demographics.html 22.9% indicate No Religios Preference, raw data provided.

[7] http://www.militaryatheists.org/regs/DODD1350-2pv2003.pdf “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs, and practices that are held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor or faith, and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.”

[8] http://www.professionalchaplains.org/uploadedFiles/pdf/code_of_ethics_2003.pdf Association of Professional Chaplains Statement of Ethics “Members shall make referrals or obtain consultations when in the best interests of

those served and maintain interdisciplinary and interprofessional relationships to foster these practices”

[10] http://mldc.whs.mil/download/documents/Issue%20Papers/22_Religious_Diversity.pdf A consolidated study of military and civilian religious identification surveys, with no single group rising over 26% in any study.

[11] Professional Spiritual & Pastoral Care, Rabbi Stephen Roberts, Ed., P 352, Figure 27.1 Chaplaincy Interventions for Outcome Oriented Chaplaincy.

[12] http://plainviews.healthcarechaplaincy.org/archive/AR/c/v6n4/a.php “we as chaplains are required to respect cultural, social, and spiritual diversity among those whom we serve. Yet we are required to obtain the endorsement of bodies, some of which have the express mission to proselytize and condemn persons with whom they disagree”

[13] http://plainviews.healthcarechaplaincy.org/archive/AR/c/v6n6/a.php  “Because of the continued interest and debate over [eliminating endorsement], we have once again chosen to place the responses here instead of in TalkBack”

[15] http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f1023.pdf IRS Form 1023 Application for tax-exempt status

[16] http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/170 US Code 26 (Internal Revenue Code) Section 170

[17] http://www.militaryatheists.org/regs/DODI1304-28v2012.pdf DoD Instruction 1304.28 Appointment of Chaplains

[18] http://www.militaryatheists.org/regs/VHAH1111-01v2011.pdf VHA Handbook 1111.01 Endorsing Organizations

[19] http://www.irs.gov/charities/churches/article/0,,id=155746,00.html 14 points for determining “church” status

7 Responses to Playing Favorites: What beliefs should chaplains support?

  1. Pingback: Tom Carpenter: Isn’t a Humanist Military Chaplain an Oxymoron? | BBC 24

  2. Pingback: Tom Carpenter: Isn't a Humanist Military Chaplain an Oxymoron? - SecularThought

  3. Pingback: Interfaith leaders support humanist chaplaincy - Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers | Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

  4. Pingback: New study shows atheists as a significant population in the military, yet the military leaves no room for them to declare humanism or atheism | God Discussion

  5. Randall Morrison90

    Atheism is simply lack of belief in God, it does not entail, necessarity, any humanistic beliefs or ethics.

    Atheists can be Communists, National Socialist, Democrats, Republicans, Objectivists, Liberals, and Racists.

    Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Eichman, Sanger, Madylyn Murray O’Hair, and Ayn Rand were all atheists.

    I.E., no particular ethics is directly related to atheism.

    • Right, but particular ethics are directly related to Humanism and/or any other ethical system you add onto the lack of belief in god.

      • Atheism just means having “no god.” The atheist is therefore free to be as good or bad as he or she wants to be. Most of the atheists I know have made the conscience decision to be good and do good. If the world is all there is, we all must be good to each other– for each other or the world would be unbearable.
        Chaplains should be neutral counselors of kindness and warmth for all service members.

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